In case you were wondering: there are no trap doors or secret entrances to the office of a private investigator.
Well at least not the office of private investigation company International Investigators, anyway.
The only entrance to the office is a door made of frosted glass. Classical music is also played on loop inside. (To prevent people outside from eavesdropping, you later learn, as the walls are thin.)
There is however, a security camera trained on you as you stand outside. You fight the temptation to wave at it.
Welcome to the mysterious world of private investigation.
We interviewed Mr James Loh, head of International Investigators, to find out what it’s like being a private investigator in Singapore.
Despite being a self-proclaimed “kaypoh” (i.e. busybody), Mr Loh did not start his career with the intention of being a private investigator. Instead, he first cut his teeth in the advertising industry.
As part of his work, Mr Loh handled projects for private investigation firms in Singapore. One of his clients later offered him a job, which he took up to scratch his itch to “find out all the secrets people are hiding”.
After 4 years of investigating under the wing of another, Mr Loh decided to strike out on his own and start his own private investigation firm.
International Investigators handles a variety of cases, such as getting the dirt on moonlighting employees and checking for counterfeit products in stores. However, the bulk of the work involves catching cheating spouses with their lovers.
For marital infidelity cases, Mr Loh summarises his daily routine as such:
“locate the suspect, trail them, collect evidence and then update the client as frequently as possible”.
It might sound like a piece of cake, but it isn’t.
Much planning takes place beforehand to make sure the investigation goes right. Team members are assembled and briefed on the assignment, and equipment is checked and packed.
On the day itself, the team gets into position and the game begins.
A large part of getting evidence involves watching and waiting for things to happen.
This requires focus and constant vigilance, even when the private investigator is pretending to play with his phone to avoid attracting attention. (They don’t pretend to read the paper so much nowadays – newspaper-reading is going out of fashion.)
In places where human traffic is high, the team also has to take extra care to make sure they don’t lose sight of the suspect. One of Mr Loh’s biggest regrets is losing a suspect in the crowd at a Chinese airport. He failed to close the case as a result.
Once something exciting starts to happen, the team closes in and starts taking notes and photographs of the events as they happen. While Mr Loh does own a watch fitted with a pinhole camera, a camera with decent-enough resolution is good enough for gathering evidence.
All this while, the team has to ensure that they are not caught doing their job. Mr Loh once had to escape from security after the suspect cornered him in a hotel lift. Undeterred, Mr Loh laid low for 3 hours and was later able to return and continue surveillance.
After all the evidence has been gathered, the team sits down to write the report.
Mr Loh showed us a sample report his team had prepared for a previous marital infidelity case. The report is meticulously compiled, stating in detail the movements of the suspect (and her lover) throughout the time she was under surveillance.
Apart from details on the suspect’s actions (“9.53 pm: Suspect walked down Hougang Avenue 5, holding hands with third-party.”) and movements (“10.13 pm: Suspect and third-party entered a house located at a HDB block in the vicinity.”), even the more mundane details are recorded for posterity. (“10.17 pm: Suspect took a drink.” – with accompanying photo of the woman lifting a drink can to her lips.)
Contrary to what many people may think, private investigators don’t go all out to get evidence of cheating partners having sex with their lovers. Mr Loh shares that catching the parties holding hands will be good enough to close the case. “Clients think that their partner won’t hold hands [with the lover] when they’re outside. We always prove them wrong.”
Local assignments are typically more straightforward and can be closed within a week. Overseas assignments however, are usually more complex.
For one, Singapore private investigators carry out their work at their own risk. In Singapore, Mr Loh has been stopped by the police for behaving suspiciously in the area. Mr Loh is unfazed by such incidents: he simply shows them his private investigator licence and they leave him in peace.
However, there is no such protection overseas – especially if private investigation activities have been outlawed in that country.
Also, surveillance and tracking is harder if you’re on unfamiliar territory. To get around this, Mr Loh sometimes enlists the help of local associates in his network of private investigators around the world.
Finally, overseas assignments are a lot more unforgiving if the suspect gives you the slip. Overseas assignments being more expensive, clients can usually only afford to fly a private investigator abroad for a few days. So during this short window of time, it’s either get the evidence needed or come back empty-handed. There is little chance for second or third tries.
Tying Up Loose Ends
Despite the risks that come with the job, it is clear that Mr Loh finds his work rewarding. “Used to it already lah” is his reply, when asked whether his work has left him jaded about marriage.
“We like to think that instead of breaking up marriages because we find out the truth, we actually help salvage them by allowing the couple to address their problems and reconcile earlier.”
Mr Loh also points to the sense of satisfaction and achievement he feels after closing a case as the reason why he has continued being a private investigator for the past 14 years and counting.
Before we leave, we ask to take a few photos for the article. Mr Loh gamely poses for the camera, standing against a wall plastered with newspaper interviews he has done over the years – a testimony to his success as a private investigator.
With the photos taken, we leave Mr Loh in peace to type up a report for a client. The frosted glass door swings shut behind us, and the classical music fades into the background as we walk away, closing our own case on the life of a private investigator in Singapore.